I have a friend who is a literary sort. Like me, he’s plodding through the cannon, looking for those books that like two hits of acid subtly shift how you see everything. When he gets tired of reading literary novels and short story collections, he picks up a palate cleanser. In his case, it’s a Star Trek novelization or some other space opera. In my case, I read a fantasy novel—a sprawling mess of a book with a hundred characters in a thousand pages—with something ridiculous on the cover like a guy dressed up like an extra from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat playing chess with a sphinx.
My friend and I are constantly giving each other shit for our reading tastes. At a party, I’ll say something like, “You should’ve worn your Starfleet officer’s uniform.” And he’ll say, “Only if you bring your wizard staff.” When we’re bored, we’ll argue over which genre, sci-fi or fantasy, is better.
We met in college, in a 400 level English course called Studies in Epic Fantasy, a class entirely devoted to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We both thought it would be an easy A, but all I remember was writing forty pages of essays about hobbits. I’d never read The Lord of the Rings before. I’d been putting it off for years. Unless you count Beowulf, J.R.R. Tolkien started the fantasy genre, a genre that got me interested in reading when I was a kid. My friend and I were creative writing majors, simultaneously reading Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver, and J.R.R. Tolkien. It was a quarter of minimalists and maximilists.
My friend had a good argument about why most fantasy sucks. It’s turgid, has too many characters, and is too long. Most fantasy novels seem like they could be about ideas, but they never really are. They could be about characters, but they always tend to be tropes. I can think of at least twenty bestselling fantasy novels with main characters who are misunderstood and weak in the beginning and strong at the end. The main problem with most modern fantasy is that the author gets carried away with world-building the same way Charles Dickens felt the need to describe the trees in a secondary character’s front yard.
Since it’s the template for all modern fantasy, let’s use The Lord of the Rings as an example. The trilogy is eleven hundred pages long.
1000 pages If you cut out all the extraneous characters, the ones milling about in the background, you’d be able to cut a hundred pages.
800 pages Two hundred more if you trimmed out the back story of every tertiary character, and most of the ancient history.
700 pages If you cut the first hundred pages of “throat-clearing,” where absolutely nothing happens.
350 pages If you cut out most of the adjectives, adverbs, and physical description of unimportant places, you’d lose another three hundred and fifty pages.
You’d end up with a novel instead of a trilogy where the same events happen, and by abandoning the Dickensonian maximilism, you’d have a more accessible book. I asked my friend what if modern fantasy abandoned its Victorian model? He said he might read one.